Black goop clean up: how special gel and paint roller tech could help

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Oil spills have been some of the most impactful environmental disasters in human history. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released over two hundred million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico, turning the sea black for years.

“(That spill) still has a lasting impact on marine environments,” said Guihua Yu, a professor of material science in the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin.

Yu said that the Deepwater Horizon spill motivated him to find a solution for clearing up oil spills. More than a decade later, he’s developed a new technology that could recover oil from the ocean following an oil spill.

The findings, published in Nature Sustainability, used giant rollers coated in a special gel that can absorb oil and reject water. Essentially, they work like paint rollers but instead of spreading the paint they are collecting oil.

A heating device atop the roller warms the oil, making it thin out and be drain through the mesh where it is collected in a tank.

The oil rollers use a mesh covered in a gel that can capture oil but rejects water. (Courtesy: Eric Henrikson/KXAN)

“You actually do not bring in water, it’s mostly is over 99% is crude oil, so it actually can be reused immediately,” Yu said.

Traditional oil clean-ups

According to Yu, oil spills in the past were cleaned using giant skimmers. “The efficiency of [the] mechanical skimmers is very limited.”

One of the issues is that they collected the water alongside the oil, meaning it couldn’t be reused. “You don’t actually want… viscous oil to mix with water.”

The new rollers can be attached to different sized ships. Yu said they can be scaled up easily based on the size of the ship that will be dragging the rollers.

Tests in a lab found that the rollers could run for hours without losing efficiency. “We see that like there’s no no, no degradation of any performance.”

Yu said they next plan to scale up the experiment and test how the tech behaves in the real world.

Gels can save the world?

This isn’t the first time Yu’s gel experiments have shown they could help with a global problem. Last year, his team developed a special gel that could pull water from the air in dry places.

“This could allow millions of people without consistent access to drinking water to have simple, water-generating devices at home that they can easily operate,” Yu said at the time.

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The gel was recently featured in a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the new paper, the team revealed a new device that could utilize the gel. The device could produce 3.5 and 7 kilograms of water per kilogram of gel materials, according to a release from the University of Texas.

According to UT, the team now plans to work on other versions of the device.

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